Locke believed that sensual experiences reveal knowledge of the external world. In defense of this stance, the philosopher distinguishes physical objects from human sense which generates ideas. His approach assumes that “the mind does not come into the worlds already inscribed with ideas or knowledge” (Vaughn 295). The only role of the mind is to receive and differentiate one idea from the other to furnish understanding.
The process of understaning from vague ideas and assumption is complex and primarily takes place in the mind. According to Locke, knowledge formation occurs in different steps, starting with simple ideas, which are the raw materials for understanding (Vaughn 295). Such fundamental concepts are then synthesized by the mind to form complex ideas, which can be in relations, substances, or modes. The definition given to the modes is that they are complicated but cannot exist independently. The relations are simple ideas which the mind synthesizes to make a new whole. Locke also states that sensation cannot “faithfully reflect reality” (qtd. in Vaughn 296). The implication is that reliance on sensual data only to derive knowledge may be misleading.
The concepts of Locke on Knowledge have received criticism from the other theorist in the rationalist school of thought. Descartes disabused his notion stating that “our most important items of knowledge must be innate” (qtd. in Vaughn 295). The other criticism of Locke’s approach is that his arguments are contradictory. For instance, Locke admits that infants are born with ideas, such as those of infirmities, from the womb which they cannot recognize as babies (Vaughn 295). The genesis of knowledge for Locke is perception through sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing from the physical environment only. He thus contradicts his initial concept of humans coming to the world as tabula rasa since there are experiences in the womb.
Conclusively, John Locke makes a significant observation regarding the process through which the physical environment transmits ideas to human perception, which are then synthesized by the brain to become knowledge. However, his notion that sensation is the only way of acquiring knowledge is incorrect. Newborns often have innate ideas like the need to be fed. Locke’s belief that people only have cognizance of sense and not the external world is also not convincing.
Vaughn, Lewis. Philosophy Here and Now: Powerful Ideas in Everyday Life. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2019.